There’s nothing worse than watching a heroic genius, who happens to be a Black woman, emotionally deconstruct on stage. In Little Girl Blue, a new musical inspired by the life of Nina Simone, the pain of an iconic musician broken by an unsupportive family, blatant racism, and rising fame is paraded and set to her own music under the direction of Devanand Janki at New World Stages. Simone, an activist who bravely used her compelling protest songs and soulful voice to lead a worldwide revolution during the civil rights era, becomes withered down to a disheveled, angry Black woman trope the musician so often tried to run away from.
To be fair, Laiona Michelle (Amazing Grace, The Book of Mormon), who wrote the musical and plays Simone, declares early in the first act, “White people have always enjoyed my music and my pain, and I brought some pain just for you.” An overflowing amount of it she did. If you walked in without Simone’s complete story or with no sense of her undeniable personal struggles alongside her worldwide acclaim, you might walk out of the theatre believing she was simply an oversexed woman, abused wife, and extremely difficult diva. What Little Girl Blue, named after Simone’s debut album, fails to do is celebrate a complex personality, a nuanced human being, and a proud Black woman who could not — and never wanted to — be put in a box.
The two-act musical weaves together a set of concerts spanning eight years and two continents. Shoko Kambara’s set design is minimalistic and practical, but it gives the feel of an intimate concert setting. In the first act, we’re introduced to Eunice Kathleen Waymon (Simone’s birth name), a woman obsessed with Johann Sebastian Bach, who had dreams of playing classical music rather than over-saturated jazz tunes, attending Curtis Institute of Music and performing at Carnegie Hall.
Quickly into the second act, the audience is introduced to the afro-wearing, pro-Black Simone, a woman categorized by her bipolar depression, her controlling husband (never actually seen on stage), and the music that arose from the pain. Costume designer Ari Fulton intricately sets the tone and timeline through Simone’s dress; however, the opening's Cinderella-like attire and subsequent understated show pieces pale in comparison to the real singer, who served as an unapologetic visual to her expressive love songs and political music. Simone famously adorned head wraps like a queen and sported loud jewelry and bold prints like the free spirit she was.
What this show does get right is Michelle’s undeniable powerhouse voice. The music is there, and every time she opens her mouth, the melodies pour out glistening waterfalls. Songs like “Feeling Good” and “I Put a Spell on You” rock you to the core and remind you of Simone’s talent and gift for presenting music that served substance. If this had been a concert with little to no dialogue, it would have probably exceeded expectations. However, Little Girl Blue was just too little and too blue.
Photo credit: Laiona Michelle as Nina Simone in Little Girl Blue. (Photo by Julieta Cervantes)